Recep Tayyip Erdogan, born on February 26, 1954, comes from a shabby Istanbul waterfront neighborhood where children grew up between rusting ships and old tires. He sold snacks on the street as a youth, to help his family. He called himself "the black Turk." He emerged, a parvenu in Istanbul's elegant, secular social strata, as a much-feared religious advocate for the masses. He is now married to Emine, with whom he has four children: two sons, and two daughters. His daughters, like his wife, wear headscarves (hijab).
Erdogan graduated from a religious high school, was a semiprofessional soccer player for various teams, worked in municipal bus services, and served as an accountant and manager in a food company. He completed his education in business administration and served as Mayor of Istanbul from 1994 to 1998 – but was then tried and sentenced for anti-secular incitement, and spent four months in prison. In 2001 he founded the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which swept the Turkish elections of 2002 in a landslide majority.
Since then, Erdogan has turned Turkey upside-down. The Islamist outsider, the extreme religious believer, the failed soccer player, now determines the future of his country. He is the most powerful Turk since the legendary founder of the republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. His history is that of someone who, in seeking to change his country, was transformed from a fighter to a reformer, and then a ruler.
In 2002 people in Turkey already seem to have viewed Erdogan as an "alpha male;" but his mastery is now obvious. Assistants and advisers crowd around him, bowing and scraping. Does he actually need their support to remain standing?
He had claimed to be seeking "Anglo-Saxon" secularism and was quoted in the London Economist in 2001, saying "I am not an Islamist – I'm just an observant Muslim and that's my own business." That was the genius of Erdogan: to profess loyalty to secularism while, once in authority, acting with determination to dismantle it.
Turkey, he repeated in political speech after speech providing the early basis of his appeal, was administered badly. His party's predecessors in government, in 2000, faced a deep economic crisis. Erdogan argued, "We want a Western standard of living and to join the European Union."
This requires reforms. The old secular elite challenged Erdogan from the time of his rhetorical excess as mayor of Istanbul in 1998, while the army warned the AKP openly in 2007 that it was on dangerous ground and could be removed. Nationalist groups summoned mass demonstrations, which the secular media applauded. The chief public prosecutor attempted to ban the AKP and its prime minister in 2008. The attempt failed and left Erdogan more powerful than before. The military delivered a more subtle series of hints about their willingness to act against the Islamists during the approach to the election of 2011, but was ignored.
Erdogan cultivates the art of provocation, as seen in his confrontational rhetoric toward Israel and Germany. He is self-confident and controlled, but aggressive. He rebuffed Angela Merkel's criticisms of Turkish press restrictions in February 2013, with the result that the dream of rapid EU entry, already clouded, appeared to have failed definitively. He called for more Turkish-language schools in Germany, where people with a family background in Turkey account for about 4.5 million, or 5% of the population. He criticized the Americans over sanctions against Iran and supported defiance of Israel's Gaza blockade by backing the Mavi Marmara maritime attempt to break the embargo, and officially endorsing the Islamist Humanitarian Relief Foundation, or IHH. He currently plans to change the constitution by expanding presidential powers, and for this many citizens are lauding him.
The constitutional referendum he called in 2010 reduced the independence of the judiciary. Three constitutional court judges are now chosen by parliament and 14 by the president. In this way Erdogan and the AKP gained dominance over the court. Similarly, and with the same intent, the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors was enlarged, from seven to 22 members. Trials of anti-Islamist public prosecutors and journalists began. A justifiable investigation of conspiracy within the army became a blind pursuit of opponents of the AKP. Generals and lawyers, until then the backbone of the Turkish state, were sentenced to prison. The army, which had long guarded Turkish secularism, was to be expelled from politics, leaving governance to party functionaries.
In every election, Erdogan gained more votes. The AKP has an absolute majority, but the separation of powers in the state is irritating to it. Erdogan seems to think he must be the only boss.
When they hear the way in which he speaks, secular and sophisticated Turks are frightened. At 59 years of age, Erdogan apparently loves to deliver advice. He criticizes the increase of single people living in the cities and calls on the young to marry as quickly as they can. A happy family, according to him, will need to produce three children or "Turks will become extinct." He calls loudly for the reintroduction of the death penalty, abolished in 2004 as an element of the nation's approach to the EU.
Erdogan seems to have two major goals: The first is the protection of his own political future, the second is that of aggrandizing what he sees evidently as Turkey's geopolitical ambitions. His accomplices also appear to envision a new constitutional order in which the president will hold the highest authority. This could work in a federal country or one with other checks on power. But Turkish centralism could easily slide into authoritarianism. The opposition denounces him, and the majority of Turks would reject a dictatorship, but Erdogan, a political rock star, looks likely to be chosen for a new-style, expanded presidency.
His project for the protection of Turkey encompasses some accommodation with the Kurdish minority, who make up as much as a quarter of Turkey's population of 85 million. Worried by the Syrian civil war and the success of the Kurdish autonomous, oil-exporting zone in northern Iraq, Erdogan would do well to solve the Kurdish issue. His representatives negotiated with the radical leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party [PKK], Abdullah Ocalan, while he was in jail, and offered political and cultural reforms in eastern Turkey – if the PKK agreed to cease fighting. Were Erdogan to establish Kurdish rights within Turkey he would repair a birth defect of the Turkish Republic and complete the legacy of Ataturk.
At Nowruz, the Kurdish and Central Asian New Year celebration on March 21, 2013, held in the eastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir, which has a Kurdish majority, hundreds of thousands of Kurds were electrified by the announcement that Ocalan had declared an end to the PKK's insurgency. At least 40,000 people had died in the struggle. Ocalan endorsed a cease-fire, and the PKK revised its earlier demand for independence, now asking only for autonomy.
Erdogan's presidential system may be a curse, but if Erdogan is still partly a reformer, peace with the Kurds would be a blessing. Erdogan has the future in his hands and many hope he will act wisely. Few really believe in this promise, but hope dies last.
Meanwhile, Erdogan must also face the problem of the Turkish and Kurdish Alevi minority, which also totals about a quarter of the Turkish census, or 20 million. Alevis are heterodox Muslims following a tradition fusing Shia Islam, metaphysical Sufism, and pre-Islamic shamanism. In 1995, an Alevi leader, Izzettin Dogan, launched an "officially-approved" Alevi group, Cem Vakfi. As members of the spiritual movement do not pray in mosques, a cem is an Alevi meeting house.
The Turkish government then used Cem Vakfi to split the Alevi opposition to the regime. The government, even when it was secular, favored Sunni Islam and harassed Alevis. Politically, Dogan represented the extreme nationalist right, and was linked to the fascist Nationalist Action Party or MHP, known as the Grey Wolves, from the title of its paramilitary branch. The MHP supported the military in its campaign against the Kurdish PKK, and the Grey Wolves have been charged with at least 5,000 murders of Turkish and Kurdish leftists, including Alevis, in the 1980s. Today the veterans of the Grey Wolves are intertwined with the state and are responsible for countless abuses of human rights in both the Kurdish areas of eastern Turkey and in localities of the country's western region, where they hold political office.
In 1978 the Grey Wolves committed a massacre of Alevis, calling all "believers" to aggressive jihad, or war on alleged non-Muslims, against Alevis and leftists. The Grey Wolves proclaimed, "One who kills an Alevi will enter paradise, and the death of an Alevi is equal to five hajj pilgrimages to Mecca."
In 1980, after a military coup, the MHP was banned, along with all other political parties. Nevertheless, many supporters of the Grey Wolves achieved careers in the military and state bureaucracy. The ban on the MHP was eventually removed and in the late 1990s the party changed its public orientation in a religious direction. In 1997, Izzettin Dogan introduced his Cem Vakfi in four different towns in the Netherlands, under the auspices of the foreign branch of the MHP, the so-called Federation of Turkish Democratic-Idealist Organizations in Europe or ADUTDF.
Erdogan's government has approached the Alevis in Turkey with plans for ambitious construction of mosques in their communities, even though Alevis meet for their rituals, as noted, in cem houses, and only a few Alevis attend mosque services.
Mosque-building in Alevi villages, therefore, is a waste of public funds, but since the 1980s, pressure for "Sunnization" has been intense and has provoked political protest among the Alevis. Today, Alevis increasingly refuse to conceal their identities, as they might have done in the past; instead, they present themselves openly as Alevis, defending the Alevi faith. Alevi books and magazines are now issued prolifically and Alevism is offered as a counter to Islamist ideology.
Support for Cem Vakfi and Izzettin Dogan by the Turkish state institutions and mass media has failed. The democratic Alevis reject him, and the situation should remain as such.
Nevertheless, the AKP regime, through its apologists, including the journalist Mustafa Akyol, who has performed brilliantly in convincing Washington politicians of his moderation, accuses the Alevis of supporting the bloodthirsty dictatorship of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria. There is no serious corroboration of this claim, which has also been made by Erdogan himself. Its proponents assert falsely that the Alevi movement in Turkey is similar to the ostensibly Shia Alawite cult ruling Syria. This is denied by Alevis themselves as well as by authoritative, objective Western academics.
While Erdogan contends with the appeals from Alevis and Kurds for an end to discrimination against them, the AKP's purge trials of military officers and journalists grind on. The Center for Islamic Pluralism has received a communication from Yasin Turker, one of 328 victims sentenced to 16 years' imprisonment in the "Sledgehammer case," in which the defendants were charged with attempting to overthrow the AKP government in 2003. According to Turker, the evidence in the "Sledgehammer" proceedings was falsified by the introduction of unprinted, unsigned, digitally-fabricated documents. Forgery of the material was proven by its appearance in Microsoft Office 2007 format, which did not exist in 2003. Not a single item of evidence or eyewitness testimony has ever supported the indictment.
Turker, a former lieutenant commander of the Turkish Navy, was tried in a courtroom in a high-security prison, away from the public and without any attorney-client confidentiality. The burden of proof was on the defendants to establish their innocence. There was no procedure for evaluating the evidence. The court refused to analyze the authenticity of the digital files included in the indictment, and refused to call witnesses for the defense. No opportunity was provided for the defense to cross-examine the prosecutors' "experts."
According to Turker, the Turkish judiciary has turned into a tool for settling scores, silencing the opposition, restructuring Turkish society and undermining its secular institutions. That is the true nature of Erdogan's program and reveals the real character of Erdogan as a politician.